Friday, June 18, 2004

Doing a test run

So for the next week, I'm trying out new digs to see if we like them or not. So for new posting please go here.

And please pleaseplease let me know what you think. If you guys like the new blog, I'll shell out the ten bucks a month and make the move permanent! Also on this new site is a photo album of photos from First You're Born with some commentary. For those of you interested in what the final product looked like (or, at least, what a reasonable representation on photo call night looked like).



Quote of the Week with Bonus Explication!

“Nothing is either good or bad but thinking makes it so.”
-- Hamlet

Right after Reagan died, I wrote a little (oh who am I kidding, a lengthy!) post about the force-feeding in meaning that is happening in this country. To recap briefly: I argued that meaning was being manufactured on two levels, both a quantity level (“we will all remember what we were doing when we heard Reagan died”) and a quality level (“everyone loved him. Our nation is in mourning”).

I’ve been thinking a lot about this idea lately—about the manufacturing of meaning and why it is such a problem. Here’s some reasons: first, it’s authoritarian. What could be more dictatorial, more restrictive of our freedom than instructing us that there is only one way to interpret the world, and furthermore what exactly that way is? Second, it’s anxiety-inducing when you find yourself incapable of having the reaction everyone else expects you to have. Third, it’s alienating to have your reactions and interpretations mapped out for you in advance. Even if you would have those reactions and interpretations anyway, there’s always a part of you that will realize that you’re being programmed to have this response. Fourth, it turns everything into advertising. In his truly brilliant essay “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again”, David Foster Wallace writes about this very problem. While talking about the Manufacturing of Meaning done by a Frank Conroy essay in a cruise ship brochure, he suddenly launches into a tirade on how the difference between art and advertising is that art wants to give you something and advertising wants something from you. At first, the two seem unrelated, but in fact they go hand in hand. Dictating the meaning (quantity and quality) to you is the first step in getting something else out of you—your continued viewership, for example, or your vote on Super Tuesday.

I’ve been thinking about this Meaning Problem in both art and politics. I think the political instances are pretty damn obvious, because it’s so pervasive that our political landscape resembles nothing so much as a highway littered with billboard signs telling us that we’ll be sexier, livelier, smarter, more meaningful if only we agreed with this person or that person or voted for a party captivated by military/oil interests instead of a party captivated by finance interests. When George W. Bush said yesterday that the 9/11 Commission report didn’t contradict his claims that Iraq and Al Qaeda were linked he wasn’t just protecting himself—he was re-mis-interpreting the report’s meaning, telling us not only that its meaning didn’t contradict him (when in fact it did) but that it wasn’t particularly meaningful or worthy of our attention because of this lack of argument.

Let me move away from politics to art, for a second. As a director, I am very cautious about dictating meaning to my audience. This puts me in a tricky situation. part of the director’s job is to help sherpa the audience through the landscape of the play. At the same time, telling your audience too much is infantilizing and reduces your audience to mere consumers instead of having a conversation with them. In other words, it turns your art into advertising. You are, in effect, demanding the audience have a specific reaction in order to get something from them-- their interest, their applause, their good reviews-- usually the reaction is something that will make them feel good about themselves. Creating a piece that allows the audience room to think and move and have their own reactions is a more interesting, human goal. At the same time, it’s an incredibly unsettling experience, because audiences will surprise you. Navigating the river that runs between anarchy and authoritarianism with your audience is a difficult, never ending learning experience.

Ambiguity is not the only strength of theater. I believe, however, in this age where film and TV have won the war for audience share and won it decisively, it’s time for us to think about what it is about theater that makes it theatrical. One of these things is ambiguity. One of them is live-ness. One of them is textual stylistic experimentation. One of them is anti-naturalism. One of them is flesh-and-blood humanity. Does this mean there’s no room for realism, or artificiality or even (gasp!) unambiguous moments on stage? Sure, but let us try to advocate in our work and our words for boldly theatrical theater, instead of overpriced live films and art as advertisement. Let’s challenge our audience by engaging with them instead of dictating to them. This, I believe, is the only way theater can survive.

(also, check out George Hunka's thoughts on the necessity of ambiguity in theater. I disagree with his swipes at Kushner and Wellman, but he has some additional thoughts on the subject you might find interesting.)

Wednesday, June 16, 2004

Groud Zero gets its Groove On

Well, they’ve decided on the cultural organizations that will fill the new space at Ground Zero. The winners are:
Dance: the Joyce Theater
Theater: The Signature Theater Company
Art: The Drawing Center
Misc: The “Museum of Freedom”

The response from our tastemakers has been just short of a Bronx Cheer. In the New York Times yesterday, John Rockwell wrote “the winners were picked not because anyone gave first thought to their worthiness as art, but because they represented a canny mix of institutions likely to make downtown a better place to live and do business.” While Terry Teachout (in an article entitled “Culture By Committee”) gets in a tizzy about the selected arts organizations. Teachout is bemoaning two things at once: he faults the choices for being “modest and safe--the inverse of the magnificent cultural opportunity afforded by the coming reconstruction of Ground Zero,” while also decrying the lack of Greatness amongst the (admittedly “worthy”) institutions.

I would love to offer up a contrary viewpoints (as you can read here, Teachout and I don’t see eye to eye on a few things), but I agree that there are multiple problems with the choices. First, as Teachout points out, the Museum of Freedom just sounds plain old silly. The proof will be in the proverbial pudding of course, but Museums often house the dead as a way of keeping them alive (like old paintings or the Native American culture we went out of our way to destroy) and last time I checked, Freedom is still alive, if on life support in our current epoch. Also, what are we to put in there? Art? Cultural documents? Propaganda? I anticipate a whole lot of problems when people start arguing about what “freedom” means and pointing to America’s illustrious history of crushing freedom while fighting for it simultaneously, usually dependant on the skin color, political affiliations or economic usefulness of the people involved.

As to the other three, their worthiness aside, would we really be happy with the choice of any currently existing arts organization? Many people point to City Opera, but I doubt City Opera would draw new audiences if it moved downtown. Just think about it for a second. Name one arts organization you would want housed in a new arts complex in downtown New York. I can’t think of any (although the Joyce certainly comes the closest). I really don’t mean this as an insult against the existing companies, it’s just that nothing currently around strikes me as bold or symbolic enough.

The opportunity missed was for a brand new endeavor that would charter new territory in arts presentation. What we needed for lower Manhattan was the new Harvey Lichtenstein, a man possessed of a vision for what kind of art is missing from the New York scene. What we needed, in other words, was a new BAM, not something exactly like BAM, but rather something with comparable scene-changing long term vision.

My idea: a space dedicated to cultural communication from all over the globe. (don’t laugh, read me out, here) The new space would import acts from all over the world (including the world within the United States but outside of New York City). BAM, the Kitchen and PS 122 have pioneered new frontiers in the arts, but having a well-funded network of various-sized spaces that could bring us lower profile, smaller budget work we would never see on these three stages would do an immense service to the New York arts community. Also, they could keep their ticket prices in the range of affordability, something that BAM (bless their hearts) are really unable to do at this point.

The space would also be founded with a second mandate of exporting American Culture oversees. Many truly excellent theater, dance and music companies simply don’t (and may never) have the budget to export their work. Trisha Brown and Richard Foreman tour their work around the globe all the time. Why not export Elevator Repair Service or Tiffany Mills while we’re at it?

One of the great breakdowns that 9/11 exposed was the breakdown in communication. We scream at each other all the time instead of talking with. We try to dominate instead of trying to understand. We look away from what is possible and instead work towards what is immediately gratifying. A new cultural center could work very actively against this, bringing smaller work from all over the globe here to New York, and exporting our wonderful shows overseas.

Of course, that would be a much bigger risk and probably cost a lot more money. Clearly, both of these things would have caused it to be DOA on the committee’s desk.

Happy Bloomsday everybody!
This is important for us bookstore employees and culture bloggers!
Maybe we'll finally move a few copies of Ulysses so more people can pretend to have read it!
(oh, I kid I kid I love I love)

I'll have a real post up later today when I get home from work, sorry about the thinness, my younger sister is in town and I'm trying to get out of the house more.

Monday, June 14, 2004

Creeping fascism

You want a good read on arts and culture and war?

Check this out. Well argued, well researched, and some interesting stories I didn't know about.

More Other News

A good reason to revoke the Catholic Church's tax-exempt status (and yet another reason to Boot the Bush in November). Archaeologists found a 1,000 year old padded bra in China.

In Britain, they just don't know how to keep their cyclist-terrorizing buzzards happy. And in Scotland, perhaps they should pick substitute teachers better.

Soon you won't be able to get the smell of Britney Spears off your clothes. Also, she may be Jewish.

Finally, in arts newsall links courtesy Tintin's final adventure will be out soon. Charleston, South Carolina may be the place to beat for best widely-over-looked summer festivals. And, if you don't think Frank Loesser, Cole Porter et al are doing the humpty-hump in their graves after reading this then I don't know what to tell ya.